Sunday morning I got up feeling discouraged. “Don’t talk to me,” I warned Mike.
We’ve been working earnestly at the Gilbert homestead for 10 to 15 years. I’m so grateful for what we’ve accomplished, but sometimes it just seems we haven’t done enough. Some of what we’ve tried to do has come to naught. Some things don’t move beyond my dreams. I guess that trip to the abandoned yet prolific rhubarb patch brought me down.
My mother and father both had green thumbs, but I must have been gawking at the moon – or, more likely, television -- instead of paying attention. As an adult I stood in my mother’s kitchen and complained about my brown thumb. She pointed to my dad in the back yard. “He’ll stand there and stare for a while,” she said, “and then I’ll see him puttering around with stakes and twine or fertilizer.” She finished by saying that a good gardener is a putterer.
It’s difficult when the growing season is short, when we aren’t always here, when growing things means real work and when you know that failure may be in the cards no matter what you do. So I asked myself, Was it different for the homesteaders?
I think my grandparents grew a decent garden here. A vegetable garden was part of the homesteading equation for successful self-sustained living. Livestock provided plenty of fertilizer and there was always a compost pile. Mike notes that the patch of lawn that lies north of the driveway is the best we have. That’s where the chicken coop used to be.
And when the days were hot, maybe the folks carried a little water to the garden, but I doubt it. Water had to be hauled some distance for house use, so they likely didn’t spend it at the garden. The term “dry land farming” applied to the garden as well. But I believe they seldom experienced long summers. Even I remember soaking summer rains. Today we can’t garden here without watering.
The homesteaders learned by experience and stood on what they learned. For instance, my dad planted the corn about the first of June and never before Mother’s Day – or something like that. Any later than that and the corn might not mature before the first freeze. The homesteaders had to pay strict attention to those “days to maturity” on the seed packets.
And speaking of seeds – Were the seeds hardier in the old days? Sometimes I wonder. I’ve flirted with planting heritage seeds. This year I bought Ferry Morse seeds and won’t do that again.
The homesteaders had their fair share of rodents and other farmyard pests, but I think we see an explosion of mice and voles today because of the years we weren’t actively endeavoring to control them. I remember my dad and brother Chuck occasionally setting about to eradicate a mole, and mice were never far away. But my dad never fenced against the deer. Today we can’t grow anything unless we fence first and you can’t fence against the rodents. The need to fence is really a huge impediment to gardening for me.
Then there’s the crop dusting and the application of herbicides, and the fields now encroach on the yard whereas in the old days there was a buffer between the yard and the fields.
Still feeling sorry for myself, I went down to check the rhubarb starts at the barn. They may never grow there in that clay. Nevertheless, I amended the soil with some 16-16-16 fertilizer which is supposed to break down clay, and then – Oh joy! -- I noticed lilac we planted last year making a strong appearance from the root. Mike trimmed around it, and I poisoned the rodent holes. Maybe it will grow there. And then I found that our gooseberry bush not only has berries but also new growth from the root. Yay! I had fertilized it a little last year and apparently it liked it, so I loosened the soil around it, added compost, and gave it some fertilizer.
Putter on! KW